Helping Distressed & Distressing Students

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Consider the following scenarios…

- A student stands up in class and shouts at the top of his lungs about being mistreated, misunderstood, and that he will show everyone what “the truth” is.
- A student arrives late to class, appears intoxicated, and stumbles on his way to his seat. He then sleeps through class.
- A student enters the back of a large lecture hall, makes the universal hand gesture of a gun, aims his hand at several students, and pulls an imaginary trigger.
- A student is reported by roommates to be cutting her arms every night at 2:00am, but she consistently wears long sleeves during the day to hide the cuts.
- A student persistently mumbles to friends and faculty about going to the top deck of the nearby parking garage. He says he goes there regularly to consider “what it would be like” but he won’t be more specific than that.

Students in distress are among those in our community who need and can greatly benefit from various forms of personal help. These students’ distress also poses a challenge for those who wish to help the student. Clearly, mental health professionals, school administrators, and security personnel are active participants in university communities. However, these specifically trained individuals are not always present when a distressing situation occurs, for example in a dining hall, classroom, residence hall, or other campus location. It is therefore important that all community members have a basic understanding of how they can best help a student in distress.

Effective communication and coordination among campus faculty and staff are important in providing appropriate resources and responses to distressed students. Students are also important in promoting a healthy campus community and in helping a friend or peer.

The University of Illinois has developed several programs to assist faculty, staff, and others in the community that have concerns about the well-being of students. This brochure describes steps to take in helping students of concern, and provides campus resources for consultation and referral. The brochure also outlines two specific university programs that address students who have engaged in suicidal behavior or who have threatened the safety/well-being of someone else.

Community Interventions for Distressed and Distressing Students

There are three basic steps a community member can take towards helping a distressed or distressing student:

1) Identify when an individual is in distress, or when someone has distressed others
2) Consult with a professional
3) Engage the individual or community in a solution

In some cases, taking these steps may be simple; in others, the process may feel more complex. This brochure outlines ideas and challenges associated with each concept, and provides guidelines for community members to follow.

Identifying Distressed Students

It is important to recognize when a person might be in enough personal distress that he or she is in need of help. Common concerns that cause student distress may include depression, anxiety, eating disorders, alcohol/substance abuse, and serious academic concerns. A student may experience a “general” type of psychological distress that may not fall into a specific category, but one that is still significant and troubling. One common indicator of distress is a dramatic or significant change from previous functioning.

In some situations, a student communicates his or her troubles to others in a clear, unambiguous, or obviously distressing manner. One such situation is when a student verbally expresses or physically acts out a desire to harm him or herself. Another is when a student actively states or physically poses a threat to others in the community. Of course, sometimes a student’s distress is not communicated in a clear, unambiguous way.

Whether a student is experiencing some form of general psychological difficulty, or whether the student becomes distressing to the community by posing a potential danger to self or others, the ability of the community to identify a person of concern is the first step towards engaging that individual and providing needed assistance in a helpful, productive manner.


Because many psychological concerns are common in our communities, and because threats to self or others are often unambiguous, individuals in distress are often readily identified by most people. Sometimes, however, signs of distress can be hidden from the community. In either case, it can be difficult to know what the next step should be, and at times it can be intimidating. How, then, should a community member proceed?

If you have begun to wonder if a particular student is distressed, you may feel the need to consult with a mental health professional. If this happens, trust your instinct. The Counseling Center is available to consult with faculty and staff who are concerned about the well-being of a student. The Federal Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) allows faculty and staff to consult with mental health professionals whenever there is a concern about a student’s well-being. These conversations will generally remain confidential except in situations where there are concerns about a student’s safety or the safety of others.

Types of questions that are common during Counseling Center consultations regarding members of our community include:

- Should I be concerned about my friend?
- How can I get help for someone I know?
- I’ve seen someone cutting/vomiting/crying (etc.), but they don’t want help. What should I do?
- I’m nervous about some bizarre emails that I’ve been getting, and I don’t feel safe anymore. Who can I talk to?
- I know someone who told me in confidence about hurting him/herself. Can the Counseling Center call them?

There are many versions of the types of questions represented above. The Counseling Center is ready to discuss any situation—be it simple or complex—regarding community members or distressed individuals during a consultation meeting or phone call.

Engaging the Student

When someone in our community concerns us, it is important that we know how to offer that person a helping hand. The Counseling Center can advise you through the various ways to engage distressed members of the community. Here are some basic ideas to keep in mind when engaging with a student in distress:

• Keep it simple. Be clear, concise, and direct in your communication. You do not have to be a mental health professional in order to help. After your initial consultation, contact the Counseling Center for further advice if necessary.
• Hear the problem. Issues that cause enough distress to raise the concerns of others are rarely “trivial.” Indeed, for the person in distress, small matters can loom very large. Listening to a person non-judgmentally can be an important part of helping.
• Be honest. It is important to share your concern. It is usually best to discuss your concern directly, without judgment or fear. This often provides an opportunity to connect the individual with further resources.
• Ask to help. Invite the student to continue the conversation and to ask for help from others. A respectful, collaborative approach can be a meaningful experience for someone in distress.
• Follow Up. If appropriate and if there is no threat to you, stay involved and in communication with both the student and any mental health professionals with whom you have consulted. “Continuity of care” is extremely beneficial for all involved: the student, the mental health professional, and you.

Remember, it is far more important to communicate your concern and interest than it is to “figure out” what is going on. If a situation or conversation becomes difficult, remember that you don’t have to agree or disagree with an individual. Although your efforts to help may be resisted or rejected, refrain from argument. It is best to respond to troubled individuals with honest, nonjudgmental feedback, and in a manner that will allow for personal follow-up and professional resources.

Threatening or Suicidal Students

Individuals who threaten to harm themselves or others represent unique challenges to all community members. Consultation with the Counseling Center, another mental health professional, or law enforcement is urged in any situation that includes a threat of suicide, homicide, or other physical harm. While managing threats of harm are usually beyond the scope of many individuals in our community, there are two distinct programs at the University of Illinois that are designed to assist both the community and the distressed individuals.

Suicidal and Self-Harming Behavior

The Suicide Prevention Program on the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign campus is a joint undertaking of the Counseling Center and McKinley Health Center. The program began in 1984 with the aim of reducing the risk of student suicide. Any individual (friend, fellow student, relative, faculty, or residence hall staff) can notify the Suicide Prevention Team if a student they know makes an attempt to commit suicide, engages in parasuicidal behavior (undertaking dangerous self-harming behavior without a stated intention of suicide), or who reports a pattern of significant suicidal ideation.

A Suicide Incident Report (SIR) paves the way for the referred student to enter a system of professional help by requiring them to complete four sessions of assessment with a mental health professional. The student’s safety is the main concern for those involved with the program. Every effort is made to respect and protect the student’s confidentiality, provided that their safety is maintained.

If you become aware of a suicide threat or attempt, you are advised to complete a Suicide Incident Referral Form. The Counseling Center can assist you in completing this form, which is available here.

Threats to Others

The University of Illinois has drafted a Threat Response Protocol to address reports of students who have made threats to harm others. The intent of the Threat Response Protocol is to advise the student to desist from engaging in threatening behavior. When a threat to the community is reported, the University administrators comprising a Threat Response Team will adapt a set of limits that are appropriate to the situation and proportionate to the reported behavior. In many instances the limits represent a reiteration of the Student Code of Conduct. In other instances, the limits represent additional restrictions on a student’s conduct. If there is a continuing or escalating threat to the community, the protocol outlines a series of increasingly restrictive limits for the threatening individual up to and including his or her formal separation from the university.

If you encounter an individual who is both distressing and threatening, seek consultation from others, including supervisors, campus security, local police, or a mental health professional. The Counseling Center can assist you in reporting the distressing behavior to the Threat Response Team, which will then pursue the appropriate action.

Community Resources and Help

There are several resources designed to help students who are struggling or who are raising the concern of others. Some of the resources available in the community are:

Ambulance or Campus Police 911
- From campus phone dial 9-911
Champaign County 24-hour Crisis Line 217-359-4141
- For use by an individual in immediate distress
Psychological Emergencies 217-244-P911
- For use by faculty, staff, etc. for the purposes of emergency consultation or reporting an incident. From campus phone remember 4-P911, or “For Psychological Emergencies”

Consultation, Advice, and Other Services
Campus Police (non-emergency) 217-333-8911
McKinley Health Center Dial-a-Nurse 217-333-2700
McKinley Health Center Mental Health 217-333-2705
Office of Women’s Programs 217-333-3137
Rape Crisis Services 217-355-5203
UIUC Alcohol and Other Drug Office 217-333-7557
UIUC Counseling Center 217-333-3704
UIUC Emergency Dean 217-333-0050

The Counseling Center offers individual, couples, and group counseling for these and related issues, as well as information about, and referral to, other campus and community resources. The Counseling Center also offers consultation for issues pertaining to any distressed or distressing student. All members of the UIUC community are encouraged to seek assistance and support from the Counseling Center to address concerning behavior in our community.

For more information or to schedule an appointment, call the Counseling Center at 217-333-3704. All appointments are strictly confidential and prepaid through the Student Health Fee.